|Australia has experienced years of devastating droughts [GALLO/GETTY]|
In a country that has suffered years of devastating droughts, catastrophic bushfires and soaring rates of skin cancers due to a gaping hole in the Ozone layer, one might expect a rising tide of popular and political pressure for the government to take steps to tackle climate change.
Not in Australia.
Last week the country’s main opposition – the conservative Liberal party, removed their leader and replaced him with Tony Abbott, widely seen as a climate sceptic, just in time to defeat the government’s emissions trading scheme bill (Ets).
The bill, which aims to cut greenhouse gases between five and 25 per cent by 2020, had been attacked on both sides – by the Green party as too weak, and by the opposition Liberals as just another costly tax on the public.
At the same time, a number of scientists and politicians – including a Climate Sceptics Party – have gained prominence by voicing doubts over whether climate change is really man-made.
All this in the lead up to the Copenhagen summit, where Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, had hoped to take his newly approved Ets bill as proof that his country was leading the global initiative on climate change.
‘Limit of habitability’
The developments seem a paradox in a country that prides and promotes itself on its rugged beauty, rare wildlife and outdoors lifestyle. And even more so, according to one expert, now that it faces the prospect of some regions potentially becoming uninhabitable as global warming takes hold.
“We have an opposition full of climate deniers. Then in the government we have climate hypocrites – they understand the science but they are not prepared to take the action”
Christine Milne, Australian Green Party senator
Fred Pearce, a British science and environment writer, told Al Jazeera that extreme weather trends such as cyclones, drought and floods are likely to become “much worse” in coming years.
“In a country like Australia where you’re already facing climate extremes … that’s really very worrying because you’re already very close to the limit of habitability.”
So why are Australians seemingly ignoring the threat on their own doorstep?
Christine Milne, deputy leader of the Australian Green Party, believes that the wider community does want to see action, but the government has no intention of taking it. And for one reason – coal.
“We have an opposition party which are full of climate deniers. Then in the government we have climate hypocrites – they understand the science but they are not prepared to take the action,” she told Al Jazeera.
“That is because of the dominance of coal in the economy and the determination of the government to treble our coal exports.”
Australia is the world’s leading coal exporter, an industry worth around $20.5bn a year in the country, according to its coal association.
|Extreme weather conditions could become more frequent as temperatures rise [Reuters]|
Milne says there is “no doubt” that the coal and oil industries “have put a huge amount of money into lobbying Canberra,” Australia’s capital.
“It’s a total contradiction especially in Queensland where you have 63,000 jobs dependant on the Great Barrier Reef.
“Everybody knows it is under threat as a result of global warming, at the same time you have a premier who wants to buy a coal-fired power station – so how is it that they can hold two completely contradictory ideas in their head and think that both are true?”
Pearce agrees that the country’s economic dependence on coal is a factor, but adds there is a simpler reason for reluctance.
“It is a paradox but it’s an understandable one. Being told that there’s a real problem with carbon emissions is not something that people want to hear.
“If you’re told that there’s this mystery invisible gas that is causing warming and if you can’t see it out your back door – sure you’re going to say ‘come on’. We’re all like this – we don’t want to hear the bad news.”
One person who refutes the “bad news” is Leon Ashby, president of what he says is the world’s first Climate Sceptics party.
“The whole idea of reducing C02 is a waste of time and money, it will do nothing to change the climate,” he told Al Jazeera.
“If Australia decides to turn its back on what the rest of the world is doing then you’re going to be ostracised, there are going to be trade sanctions”
Fred Pearce, British environment writer
“So every idea that is talked about will be … a waste of money that could be better used to alleviate poverty, provide clean water or educate young children.”
He believes that 15 to 40 per cent of the Australian population are climate sceptics, and the climate change movement “an orchestrated affair run by green lobbyists and politicians keen to stay in power and look like they are saving the planet”.
But Ross Gittins, economics editor of Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald, says the majority of the population do want action over climate change, and that recent developments are not indicative of the public mood.
“If you look at the polls you find strong support for the Ets and a belief that the government should be doing something about climate change,” he told Al Jazeera.
“What’s going on in the heart of the Liberal party is unrepresentative of the general electorate. And the electorate believes that climate change is the problem, and climate change is real and is happening is around us as we speak, and that the government should do something.”
He believes that the public are not worried about coal exports – saying the economy will only be affected by other countries reducing their reliance on Australian coal, rather than a tax on carbon coming into the country.
Signing up to Copenhagen
But does this mean Australia is less likely to sign up to a tougher stance on emissions cuts if one is agreed at Copenhagen?
The Green Party think so.
“It’s quite obvious that Australia has been trying to align itself with what it thought the US would bring in,” Christine Milne says, citing the former government’s boycott of the Kyoto protocol.
“But if [Barack] Obama decided to take serious action then Kevin Rudd would be in a very difficult position, because he doesn’t want to make the cuts to emissions [that we are calling for],” she said.
Gittins says that Rudd’s Ets bill, which he believes will eventually pass the Senate, has already made allowances for a tougher agreement at Copenhagen, allowing cuts of 25 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 if a water-tight deal is agreed.
But he added cuts of 40 per cent – the number the Greens are calling for – would be too extreme for most Australians.
Fred Pearce warns that failure to sign up to an international agreement would be extremely detrimental.
“You can’t turn your back on it, and if Australia decides to turn its back on what the rest of the world is doing then you’re going to be ostracised, there are going to be trade sanctions.”
And if a deal is not struck in the coming days, he says, Australia could face an even bleaker future.
“If things carry on and the world doesn’t reach a deal on climate change then the whole world will confront that and Australia will be in the front line.”